Thursday, September 16, 2010

Gilson on Voluntarism

From Gilson's History of Christian Philosophy, reprinted in A Gilson Reader, p. 134-136:

"Having thus posited a necessary being as the first cause of all that is, Duns Scotus finds himself at the same starting point as Avicenna, but when it comes to explaining the relation of finite beings to the infinite being, he separates from the Arabian philosopher. For Avicenna, the possible emanated from the necessary by way of necessity; for Duns Scotus, whose doctrine in this case becomes a radical anti-Avicennism, the possible comes from the necessary by way of liberty. The God of Duns Scotus is a necessary being because he is infinite being. Now, between infinite being and finite beings, all ontological relations are radically contingent. In a doctrine which is based on univocal being and not upon analogical acts of being, a dividing line other than the act of being must be drawn between God and creatures. The role played in Thomism by the existential purity of the divine act-of-being is played in Scotism by the divine will. The infinite essence of God is the necessary object of God's will. There is, in the God of Duns Scotus, no voluntarism with respect to God. There is no trace of voluntarism in him even with respect to the essences of creatable beings. Even in the moral domain God s in some way bound by the first two commandments of the Decalogue, which are the expression of the natural law and correspond to an absolute necessity. In Scotism, divine liberty is emphatically not the enlightened despotism of the Cartesian Lawgiver whose will freely promulgates even necessary and eternal truth. In Scotism, the will of God intervenes to bridge the ontological gap there is between the necessary existence of Infinite Being and the possible existence of finite beings. In the universe of Avicenna, because the First was necessary, all the rest enjoyed a conditional necessity; in the universe of Duns Scotus, because the First is infinite, all the rest is contingent. Between the necessary and the contingent the only conceivable link is a Will.

In a curious text wherein Duns Scotus describes a hypothetical generating of essences in God, we see that, at the first moment, God knows his own essence in itself and absolutely; in the second moment the divine intellect produces the stone, conferring upon it an intelligible being, and God knows the stone (in secundo instanti producit lapidem in esse intelligibili, et intelligit lapidem); in the third instant, God is compared to this intelligible and a relation is thus established between them; in the fourth moment, God in some way reflects on that relation and knows it. It is therefore clearly a posteriority of finite essences in relation to the infinite essence of God which is here at stake. Since God's essence is the only necessary object of God's will, there is not one of these finite essences whose existence should be necessarily willed by God. God creates if he wills to do so, and only because he so wills. To ask the reason why God willed or did not will such-and-such a thing is to ask the reason for something for which there is no reason. The sole cause for which the necessary being willed contingent things is his will, and the sole cause for the choice he made is that his will is his will; there is no getting beyond that. The only conditions this liberty observes are to will essences such as they are, to chose only compossible essences among those that are to be produced, and to preserve unchangingly the laws which have once been decreed. With the exception of the principle of contradiction and of the intrinsic necessity of the intelligible forms taken in themselves, the will of God is therefore absolute master of the decision to create or not to create, as well as of the choice and combination of essences to be created. With respect to what is not God, the divine will is not necessarily ruled by the good; it is on the contrary the choice of the good that is subject to the will of God. If God wills a thing, that thing will be good; and if he had willed other moral laws than the ones he established, these other laws would have been just, because righteousness is within his very will, and no law is upright except in so far as it is accepted by the will of God. One could not go any further without ending in Cartesianism; but in order to go further, one should first reject the very essence of Scotism, which lies here in the formal distinction there is between the intellect of God and his will."


Here we have classic Gilson: Avicennism, comparisons to Descartes (the subject of Gilson's dissertation, as everyone already knows), and the act of being. I posted this because of his remarks about how there is no voluntarism in God, which I found surprising from a Thomist. But Gilson always was fair (save when he berates later Scotists for saying existence is an accident in Being and Some Philosophers). There are a few things that aren't quite right, however. Such as the bit about the will serving for Scotus what essence-existence/act of being does for Thomas. For Scotus the principle that distinguishes God and creatures is the intrinsic modes of infinity and finitude. And some of the later comments on the will are rather overstated; that is, they are more Gilson's interpretation than anything Scotus ever said. Scotus does say that the second table of the ten commandments is contingent, but he is mainly trying to reconcile believed contradictions to the table carried out by God himself. This is a little different than claiming the divine will is not ruled by the good. This may follow, but I don't think Scotus thought of it that way; he is more interested in enumerating the kinds of acts the will has and how they are elicited. Regarding the "hypothetical" production of creatures into intelligible being, well, he should drop the hypothetical bit. This scandalized plenty of 14th century Scotists (the subject of a forthcoming article), but Scotus appears to have meant it. Caveat: Petrus Thomae claims that Scotus only meant it metaphorically, and proceeds to exegete a passage in Scotus he claims proves this. But he doesn't bother to say where this passage is, and I have yet to find it.

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